Dear Data: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to How Our Attention Shapes Our Reality
A celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet marvelously human details through which we wrest meaning out of the incomprehensible vastness of all possible experience that is life.
By Maria Popova
“Information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle,” James Gleick wrote in his indispensable history of how the age of data and human consciousness shaped one another. A generation earlier, the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler proclaimed in what remains the most resonant chorus to our age: “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe… Observer-participancy gives rise to information.” What we measure, monitor, record, and attend to is what colors our view of life. And so it is that “observer-participancy” has become the hallmark — the chief currency, the focal lens — of our Information Age: The quality of our attention and the nature of its recorded representation have become the informational infrastructure of our reality.
In the spring of 2015, I wrote about Dear Data — a wonderful project addressing this dependency with uncommon lyrical elegance. In their yearlong correspondence, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, chose a weekly locus of attention, visualized their respective data points on the back of a postcard, and mailed these self-portraits in data across the Atlantic.
I ended the piece about the project with a beckoning: “Publishers, nota bene — this is the kind of project begging to be a beautiful book.”
Princeton Architectural Press took note and Dear Data (public library) is now a book, for which I had the pleasure of writing the foreword. Experiencing the project anew, in this beautiful analog form, only amplifies its deeply humane ethos of reclaiming the living texture of “data” in our everyday lives from the word’s unfeeling, algorithmic, non-human connotations.
And, indeed, the “data” which Posavec and Lupi record are of the humanist, humanest kind — kindnesses (thanks paid, compliments received, smiles beamed at strangers), grievances (vanities, envies, self-criticisms), creaturely joys and vices (solitude savored, distractions succumbed to, beauty relished).
Here is the foreword essay, as it appears in the book:
“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” William James wrote at the dawn of modern psychology. And yet however perennial this insight may be, it is only a partial truth. Our experience is shaped as much by what we agree to take in as it is by what we refuse — what we choose to leave out — and both are only partly conscious choices. Our attention filters in a fraction of what goes on around us at any given moment and filters out, thanks to millions of years of evolution, the vast majority of the shimmering simultaneity with which the life of sensation and perception unfolds. This highly subjective, selective, imperfect filtration of reality guarantees that however many parallels two human beings may have between their lives, however much common ground, the paths by which they navigate their respective landscapes of experience will be profoundly divergent.
In their yearlong visual correspondence project, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, capture the inherent poetry of that subjective selectivity. Each week, they jointly select one aspect of daily life — from sleep to spending habits to mirror use — and depict their respective experience of it in a hand-drawn visualization on the back of a postcard, then mail it to the other. Out of these simple diurnal observations emerges the complexity of the human experience — nonlinear, contradictory, and always filtered through the discriminating yet imperfect lens of attention.
The creative constraint of the unifying themes only amplifies the variousness of possibility within each parameter. Despite the substantial similarities between the two women — both are information designers known for working by hand, both are only children, both have left their respective homeland to move across the Atlantic in pursuit of creative fulfillment, and they are the exact same age — their attentional orientation toward each week’s chosen subject is completely different, both in substance and in style. They deliberately use different visual metaphors and information design techniques for each week’s theme, producing is an immensely pleasurable duet of sensibilities — side by side, Posavec’s signature spatial poetics and Lupi’s mastery of shape and color elevate one another to a higher plane of meaning and delight.
A twenty-first-century testament to Virginia Woolf’s celebration of letter-writing as “the humane art,” the project radiates a lovely countercultural charm. Ours is the golden age of Big Data, where human lives are aggregated into massive data sets in the hope that analysis of the aggregate would yield valid insight into the individual — an approach no more effective than taking an exquisite poem in English, running it through Google Translate to render into Japanese, and then Google-translating it back into English; the result may have the vague contours of the original poem’s meaning, but none of its subtle magic and vibrant granular beauty.
Lupi and Posavec reclaim that poetic granularity of the individual from the homogenizing aggregate-grip of Big Data. What emerges is a case for the beauty of small data and its deliberate interpretation, analog visualization, and slow transmission — a celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet marvelously human details through which we wrest meaning out of the incomprehensible vastness of all possible experience that is life.
Complement the poetic and humane Dear Data with Patternicity, inspired by Posavec and Lupi’s project, then revisit artist Lynda Barry’s field guide to keeping a visual diary and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to attend to life’s wondrous details by overriding the brain’s default blind spots.
Published September 7, 2016